Cairo 2050: ambitious plans, threathened population

The City Council of Cairo approved a set of plans to dramatically alter the polluted city’s face. Yet critics fear that the council’s “green” intentions are a cover to hide the true aspirations of the real-estate mafia. MO* spoke with Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy about the relocation of the oldest functioning cemetery in the world.
The Great Cemetery of Cairo does not look like any of its European counterparts. Covered in Egyptian sun, situated in the center of one of the largest cities of the world, the Cairo cemetery unites living and death on its soil. Today, as the Egyptian government approved a plan to radically modernize the area, this century-old harmony between life and death might come to an end.

The City of the Death

In the streets of Cairo the cemetery is called el-Arafa, Egyptian for cemetery. El-Arafa was founded in the seventh century and is the oldest functioning cemetery in the world.
From its inception, the cemetery was a place balancing between life and death. Grave caretakers and their families, as well as pious Muslims wanting to live close to the shrines and religious institutions, found a home amid the monuments and graves.
Over the past fifty years, el-Arafa turned into an affordable neighborhood for new immigrants arriving in the capital. Yet how many people are residing the area today, remains a well-kept secret. Lacking official statistics, numbers tend to vary according to the interests of the one who cites. Some talk about 60.000, others count 500.000 or up to a million inhabitants. In the meantime, the cemetery has turned into a genuine city, with water, electricity, a post office, a medical center, shops and cafés.

Project Cairo 2050

Mid 2009 the Egyptian Ministry of Housing announced the ambitious Project Cairo 2050.
The government intends on turning the polluted city once again into a pleasant environment, by proposing excessive changes in urban planning. Among others, Project 2050 will replace the el-Arafa cemetery by gardens and parks, creating a green lung in the middle of the city.
To create the green environment Cairo desperately craves, Project 2050 wants to transform the twelve-kilometer long cemetery strip into a giant green vein? 17.000 acres of graves and monuments would be relocated to the satellite cities of Helmand and Six October City, their inhabitants to apartments on the outsides of the capital. 
With more or less seventeen million inhabitants, more than two million highly polluting cars, little public transportation and deplorable air quality, Cairo is –according to the World Bank – the most polluted city in the world. Hence for years, the City council has been looking for ways to improve the living quality of its citizens.


Yet many distrust the government’s megalomanic plans.
‘Project 2050 is designed by members of the National Democratic Party, friends of Jamal Mubarak - son of the president - and by businessmen with a bold vision for the capital,’ said Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy in an interview with MO*.
‘The government doesn’t realize how many people are living in the area. It simply thinks the dead have to be transported and the families which own a grave compensated,’ Fahmy explained.
The historian believes that the proposal to convert el-Arafa into a park is only a cover-up for the true plans of the businessman. According to Fahmy ‘creating parks is always popular in Cairo, everybody wants them. Construction and real estate, that’s what it is about.’

Hesitant positivism

The Egyptian weekly el-Ahram visited el-Arafa after the City Council’s announcement and discussed the proposals with the cemetery’s inhabitants. Many were alarmed by the plans of the government, while others could see the advantages of leaving the area.
On the one hand the people of el-Arafa live in one of the safest, most quit neighborhoods of the otherwise hectic capital. The cemetery might not have a phone or garbage service, it looks nothing like an Egyptian slum.
On the other hand many of the inhabitants feel systematically discriminated against. Especially younger generations have a hard time to find friends from other and often refuse to disclose their origins to employers or professors. To live in an apartment in Six October City or Helmand does not seem such a bad idea.
Yet, that the government is really planning on providing the inhabitants of el-Aarafa with a new place to live, seems Fahmy an illusion. ‘They don’t know what they’re talking about,’ he said.

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